Silence: A Short Story

 

The fire alarm down at the paper mill goes off again, and enters the world through every earhole in the city. Large and sustained, a signal for an imminent danger neither us had to be concerned with. I let myself out of the car in our driveway, and get out my key for the front door. Push it forward into the open concept kitchen, where I don’t do the dishes.

I put the black kettle on a reddening burner. Wait for steam. Think about you back at the field, and inch my bleacher-chafed arse around the cool until I could get warm enough to slip off my toque.  I uncurl onto the futon in the living room, press my face down onto its synthetic fabric. Breathed dust and tiny plastic fibre. I start trying to build demarcations in my memories again, to determine when the futon stopped being mine and Karen’s, and started being ours. When everything in the apartment stopped being mine and Karen’s and started being ours.

Like always, I can’t determine it. But tonight it seems most logical the place is actually ours. The three of ours.

The kettle starts harmonizing with the murder cry of the fire alarm down at the mill, so I get up to take it off. My mug is white and thick and deep and porcelain when I pour white liquid into it. This is why I came back to our tiny apartment, to fill the thing with warmth; drag it back to the bleachers with me; something to furl my hands around in the unseasonal cold.

It’s August. I’ve taken to wearing hoodies again.

Karen was killed in our bathroom about a year ago.

When I sneak back to the field, I make sure not to drip any liquid on our floor. I was hoping you hadn’t scored. Hoping you would score after I got there.


See, Karen never wanted me so bad until she found the stains your blood left on our bed, after the first night you slept there. And I liked the way she looked at me, as she pulled off the cover layer and saw them. I thought I heard everything click in her head. I was a fucker. I’d never been fucked by anyone like Karen when she was that jealous, and all I wanted was to keep it going.

That first night, before you bled onto our bed I spurted blood onto your boyfriend’s bathroom mirror, pulled my face toward the glass and popped a pimple. It had been nesting above my left eye, I’d seen in my reflection in an empty glass.

I stumbled out of the bathroom and walked hammered amidst loud Jamiroquai; amidst human bodies pressed together in tight clusters, sweating and talking about me. They were all talking about me, like they start to do at every party, eventually, and I kept my head down and walked into your boyfriend’s chest, spilling his drink down his belly, onto the floor.

Get a rad, he’d said, half-grinning. Instead, I walked straight through the kitchen, down the hard wood hallway, and out the back door. You were out there because you wanted fresh air, standing around pulling the closest thing to it into your lungs. I said you wouldn’t find fresh air around here, if that’s what you were looking for. You were wearing a cheetah-spotted coat, and stockings. Your shirt was way too big and it draped down onto your bare thighs. I could see muscle pulling lines into them when you rested your weight onto one leg and looked past your exhale of grey, towards me.

You asked if I was bored, too. I said “yeah, you wanna go for a walk?”

My apartment was a few blocks away. We ended up outside the front door. I didn’t know where Karen was.

You wanted to try something you hadn’t done with anyone since you were small enough to do it with your dad; I hunched down and let you climb onto my shoulders your legs stretching down to my waist as I stood up. I held you aloft like that and tried to stay as still as possible, fishing around in my pocket for the key. You were crying out because you thought I was going to drop you, and I got scared thinking someone from the party was going to hear us, that they had followed us here.

I got the door to open and it swung forward into the big space of the kitchen. Like it’s always done.

The continuum of nights, of letting myself in, these memories are like weeds uncoiling outwards around the memory of not being unable to open the bathroom door. When it was still my bathroom, not yours, and I had to wait outside, pounding and screaming until Jake stopped torturing Karen and slit her throat. And her screaming fell into silence as her life ended.

Sometimes I see myself as the progenitor of the movements enacted in her death. Like my past decisions were the soul reason she died. I let jealousy out of its cage, and it turned back on me and bit my hand off.

You were there that night she died, uncoiled on my bed, waiting for her to stop screaming. And you were the one that invited Jake over, to keep her busy while we fucked around. I didn’t know Jake evaporated and something else took his place after enough blow and liquor.

When I bring you home from soccer, the firemen have gotten to the mill, and unwound their magic through the vacated halls. Through a signal of silence, they have set another demarcation through our perception of time. One squat between the moment a fire has ended and the impending moment another one begins.

You change out of your soccer uniform and we let ourselves onto the bed. When we’re this close, our hearts beat our minds unhinged.

Sometime later I dream I’m at Karen’s funeral and my mom is there and her blonde hair flows out from under her black hat and she looks into my face and tells me you don’t exist. And I try and argue but when I open my mouth a ringing fills the air and men are dragging me backward towards a police car and I wake into a room filled with the racket of the fire alarm down at the mill. Karen’s there like she sometimes is to tuck me back in, and calms me into quiet. It’s like she knows it’s the only thing I’ve ever wanted.

The Surgeon

He focused on the black cauterized stubs where his fingers had been, staring vacantly past the syringe as the needle entered his arm. The world had become sluggish with the overloads of agony, but the pain slipped away with the ease of the needle piercing his skin. He felt the cold liquid slide icily into his veins and the bright light above him became streaked with every fractional movement of his head; his mind had become velvet lined with a familiar narcotic haze.

Later he distantly felt a second sharp prick as the needle entered his temple and by a tug as the flow was reversed. He looked blankly at the blood filled syringe as its work was finished and it disappeared back into the dark.

In the beginning he had watched every movement of the man in green scrubs, with fearfully sharp clarity and dread filled anticipation. The approach of each new sharpened implement and razor edge became a screaming terror.

He’d memorized every pore of the man’s uncovered facial skin and fell howling into the fiery green flecked eyes that watched him impassively above the white surgical mask.

He realized vaguely that the soft breathed voice had been asking him a question; the implacable demands had now become soft requests.

“Now, do you want to talk about it? Why Mr. Jarret? Why do you hate?”

The voice seemed to come from a great distance and the misshapen words tumbled in his mind as he tried to grasp at their insubstantial edges with his thoughts.

He remembered being in the car, he was angry. The whore had been back and taken her stuff (from him?), making him look like a fool. She was HIS. He would smash her in the face till she begged for his forgiveness and his humiliation was washed away in her blood.

He drove to her bitch friend’s flat, but the lights were out. The neighbours had threatened to call the police if he didn’t stop beating at the front door. It had taken him a long time to find where she had hidden.

Much later when he had and got back into the car, he had been gripped from behind and had felt a sharp pinch in his neck and then the steering wheel was rushing towards him.

His next memory was waking strapped to this cold metal table, shocked by bright circle of lights above him. As his eyes adjusted to the lights and he saw metal beams above him, draped with dust heavy cobwebs that hung like gobs of infected spittle. The warehouse ceiling was at odds with the chemical clean smell of a medical ward. Alarm had sped through him in an electric jolt, this was not a hospital or anywhere he wanted to be.

When the man dressed in surgeon green had first appeared, holding a scalpel in front of his face, he had nearly laughed aloud at the ridiculous sight. The soft granular voice had asked for the first time ‘Why do you hate?’ and he had laughed at him in derision.

As the torture began he raged against the pain, with promises of violent revenge. But the man in green was deaf to his threats and continued on with the tin snips and the excruciating removal of his toes.
By the time his feet were fully trimmed, he had begun to negotiate, to promise money, drugs or any act of violence in the surgeon’s name. But the question remained the same, as did the pain. He refused the answer, even when long stainless steel nails were hammered into his knee caps, each one shown to him with a magician’s flourish, until he could remember nothing but screaming and the breath whined painfully in his throat.

“Why do you hate Mr. Jarret?” The question came again and again.

By the time the surgeon strapped his wrists to the table and showed him the surgical saw, its blade spinning in a blurred circle. He had begun to beg, he swore to do anything, he swore on his mother’s life, even swore to the God he didn’t believe in that he was sorry, would do anything to be better person, to do whatever the man wanted him to do.

Only as the last finger of his right hand was sawn away and cauterized with the flame of a propane gas torch, did he begin to sob in earnest loss.

“Don’t hurt me anymore, please make it stop” He wept quietly “I don’t know why I get so mad, why I hurt people, I’m sorry, just make it stop”

The spinning saw appeared just before his eyes and he felt wet spray of his own blood on his face.
“Why, do you hate Mr. Jarret?” The voice was still emotionless and demanding.

“Because, I wanted to mean something, feel important and because everyone else is worthless compared to me” He felt like he was speaking aloud in his mind and was surprised to feel a burden lifted as if something had been broken free from inside his chest.

“That’s very good Mr. Jarret, now tell me why you killed her?” The voice asked softly

He had denied it for so long despite the pain, despite the agony, he would not admit it. But now he floated above his fear, all pretence in him had been burned away by the agony.

“Because I enjoyed hitting her, it felt good; I enjoyed hating her, it made me feel powerful and important. Did you know her? She was very beautiful…other men must have wanted her, but she was mine. She was mine.” He whispered in reverence of the memory, “Did you know her?” He asked desperately.

Now the surgeon leaned over him, the green eyes regarding him dispassionately above the surgical mask, while he still held the bloodied saw that had recently removed his last, little finger.

“No Mr. Jarret, I did not know the deceased young lady personally, but I have studied your life and I have witnessed your handy work on the innocent. You have lived a life of hate. But now you are free Mr. Jarret. Aren’t you?”

‘Watched’ he thought, he had known all along. This was his punishment.

“Thank you” He whispered “Will you let me go now, now I have learnt my lesson, now I will be a better person?”

“I have already set you free Mr. Jarret the last injection as well as a happy dose of heroin, sadly also contained Tetrodotoxin, a very quick working poison derived from the blue ringed octopus, you may be feeling it work about now. It is I am afraid, most deadly.”

The words took seconds to penetrate his senses and panic seemed to bloom in his brain. But as he tried to move, he found parts of his body were already paralysed, he tried to speak again, but his throat was constricted. He spasmed and thrashed before with one last lance of pain in his mind he slipped away into utter darkness.

The surgeon held his blood coated syringe up to the light and looked deep into the red fluid within the chamber, watching thin black streaks circle with angry intensity. He nodded in understanding, the entity within had lost control of its host’s sensations and emotions, he could understand the parasites loss; it was after all his gain.

He smiled as he washed the saw in the makeshift antiseptic wash, about a job well done. The prey was so often difficult to get to the surface, wrapped in the very emotions and synapses of their flesh bound hosts. But with the right application of pain, fear and timed poison, not to mention the very masterful coaxing of a virtuoso, they could be extracted. He was satisfied that he had captured all of the spirit creature from the man’s being and sent the flesh pure soul into the beyond, a service he offered the universe for free.

Humming cheerfully he injected the fluid into his arm feeling the ever familiar rush of intense pleasure as the creature was absorbed in the endless burning furnace of his ancient soul, feeling youth and power like a conflagration in his veins as he fed.

As the fire subsided he continued cleaning the blood spattered tin shears and began to sing quietly ‘C’mon baby light my fire’. By the side of the sink on a table, the hospital records of a battered young wife whom he had come across in his surgical mask, who seemed a promising lead to his next quarry. He only hoped her death would come soon enough to over excite and expose his prey.

The Thing At The Piano

Up the moss covered rocky hills where trees don’t grow but the ground rarely sees light. The top of the hill always seems to be enclosed in thick fog with a great house veiled in the midst of it. The house stood decaying due to years of neglect in the mist but still stands firmly no matter how hard the wind blows. The inside, I’ve been told, contradicts the outward appearance with everything in its place as if frozen in time, but signs of the original owners are absent as they themselves have been missing for years. This dilapidated residence belonged to the Conklin family. Nebuchadnezzar Conklin, a researcher and teacher of archaic occult practices, his wife Henrietta and their twins Janelle and Jules all vanished after reports that Nebuchadnezzar locked himself away in his library reading over aged manuscripts, translating them from unknown words to Akkadian and retranslating them to, of all things, music notes.

The last time she was seen in town below the fog covered hills; Henrietta Conklin said her husband would either be frantically flipping pages of books or scratching on paper while mumbling to himself or playing “malevolent” notes on the grand piano that was locked with him in the library. The musical notes made her body cold and made her doubt her sanity because whenever the notes were played she swore the color of the world fades. When asked why she left the twins in the house with such an evil composition, she would look on as if concerned for the ones asking questions and reply, “I don’t have children, I’m not even married.” The response haunts those who’ve heard it and those still investigating the family’s disappearance to this day. Were her nerves coming apart or has something touched her sanity?

Days later a frantic call came to the only friend the family had in town, it was Henrietta or they thought it was. They said Henrietta spoke in a “metronome” pattern, her words mixed with either gibberish or an unknown language. The friend said they could hear frantic slams on piano keys accompanied by an unfamiliar chorus of either brass or woodwind instruments. At one moment, Henrietta would stop in mid sentence and start laughing hysterically before her voice was replaced by that of a child who continued the conversation where she left off. It was possibly one of the twins who according to the friend sounded more disturbing than her Mother. The friend could not describe what the child was like over the phone without sobbing uncontrollably but said it was nothing they’ve ever heard of and would rather die horribly than to hear it ever again.

After that call, the police arrived at the Conklin house and found it to be silent. The officers searched all over the property with no success before going into the house itself expecting to see a scene of gore and malice, the officers found none. In fact they found absolutely nothing wrong in the house. The furniture were sitting properly in their places, the hardwood floors reflective like mirrors, doors open with no signs of recent violent use of force. It was not till the officers got to the library and were about to open the door, they heard a single deep note struck on the piano. There would be a two second delay before the same note was hit again. As the officers opened the door they saw sitting at the piano a large humped thing in a tattered cloak, the only thing they saw was its large claw jabbing the piano key. The officers who saw it where later relived from their duties after it became apparent that their nerves were broken beyond repair. There’ve been others since then who dared enter the Conklin house to see the thing in the library and all have said they saw the same thing sitting at the piano. I’ve seen it too now, the Thing that resides in the Conklin house.

The Haunted House: A Short Story

Frederick stood 50 feet from the entrance of the haunted house while his teammates pleaded with him to go inside.  He rattled off a bunch of statistics of mechanical failings in these kinds of pop-up carnivals while they rolled their eyes.

“Just 3 years ago in Iowa, the roof came loose and injured 5 people.  A 12 year old girl lost her arm.”

They laughed.  “Freddy, if you’re scared, just say so.  You don’t have to make up injury statistics.”

Frederick was scared, but he didn’t want to admit it.  It was just last week that he had made the varsity football team as a sophomore; he would be the starting running back and safety on a team that had made the state championship the last two seasons.  He couldn’t very well have his new teammates see him jump at the sight of a dirty bedsheet on a stick emerging from the darkness.

Eventually he realized he wouldn’t be able to talk his way out of it.  He looked at Chet – the starting quarterback – in the eye and gave a slight nod.

“Alright!  Freddy’s in.  Quick, let’s go in before he remembers about the guy who was paralyzed by a prop gone wild in Arkansas.”  They laughed.

Frederick took one last look around the carnival yard.  It would be moving on the next day, so it was pretty empty.  He thought maybe he would see someone in dire need of help somewhere and could heroically rush off to help them.  “Sorry guys.  Can’t go in there; my fellow man needs me.”  But there were no damsels or lads in distress, so Frederick turned towards the haunted house and shuffled up the steps.

The opening featured a cartoonishly large mouth with vampire teeth, lips curled back in a grotesque laugh.  The eyes above were red and wild.  Frederick gave a short laugh at the ridiculousness of it all.

His laugh brought the attention of the door attendant.  He was an old man, sitting on a stool so tall his legs didn’t quite reach the floor.  His body was hunched over, as if his necklace weighed 500 pounds.  His terrible comb-over was covered with a ratty top hat.

“You find this funny?  Perhaps you won’t be laughing when you exit.  If you exit.”  His laugh was harsh and uncomfortable.  Frederick gave the man a quick, sidelong glance before hesitantly pushing his way through the black curtain that marked the entrance.  The man’s laugh seemed to get louder as he stepped through, as if it were echoing off every wall.

The entrance was a dark, narrow hallway.  The walls were tight; Frederick barely had enough room to pass through with his broad shoulders.  On the few occasions where he made contact, they gently swayed, as if they were nothing more than cardboard.  He attempted to look more closely at them, but he couldn’t make out much in the dark.

Frederick looked down and realized that he couldn’t see past his knees.  “Smoke machine must be working overtime,” he said nervously.  He looked for his teammates and saw they were already 20 feet ahead of him.  He sped up his step to catch up with them.  Once he was back in their presence, he began to calm down, and the laugh of the old man finally seemed to dissipate, swept away with the smoke.

The entrance hallway turned to the right and widened, revealing many alcoves lining the walls, filled with the most frightening costumes Wal-Mart had to offer for less than $30.  A rubber witch mask and flowing black bedsheet shot out, while a cackling laugh playing over the speakers.  Frederick startled, but not enough for anyone to notice.  “I can do this,” he thought.

The laughter of the others made it easier to deal with.  He found it difficult to be scared while the rest of the guys were poking fun at every scare.  Watching them laugh and pretend to punch the masked killers in bathrobes put Frederick at ease.  One subject in particular drew a lot of laughs: a two-foot doll with long dark hair covering her face and bright red paint splattering her white dress.  A metal arm was attached to the back of her neck, cocking her head ever-so-slightly from side to side.  But it was turning a bit too hard and the head had popped off.  The hair had also uncovered her face, revealing the surprisingly uncreepy face of a mid-80s Cabbage Patch Doll.  Frederick was starting to feel pretty good, so he stopped for a few moments to inspect the doll.

He dwelled on it for longer than he meant to, and when he looked up he found himself alone.  Someone must have turned up the smoke machine, because it was now up to his chest.  “Hello?”  There wasn’t even an echo.  “You guys there?”  He heard laughing up ahead but he was determined not to run.  He was having a good time; the last thing he wanted was for panic and fear to come creeping back.

He walked to the end of the hallway and stopped, listening.  He heard laughter, but it seemed further away.  He was getting ready to jog up to the next turn, but something to his left caught his eye.  It was the same doll he saw earlier, right down to the blood splatter pattern.  Frederick laughed.  “Must have found a deal.”  He briefly laughed at himself for being scared to enter such a cheaply thrown together haunted house. He was about to turn when he saw movement from behind the doll.  A figure dressed head-to-toe in black emerged from the wall holding a long, curved blade.  Frederick was able to get out one strangled yelp before he felt the blade enter his throat.  The figure dragged Frederick’s kicking body through a gap in the wall.

Frederick’s teammates waited outside the haunted house.  “You think he’s still in there?  Probably got scared by a rubber cockroach or something.  YO FREDDY!  YOU COMING?  I’m going back in.”
Chet’s phone buzzed.

– not feeling well. left thru front door. c u tmrw

“Freddy,” Chet reported to the group, pointing at his phone.  “Must have got spooked.  Already took off.”

As they walked away, they heard the old man say, “Have a pleasant evening.”  His laugh echoed into the night.

“I Don’t Believe Sellers Have to Disclose Previous Satanic Worship on the Property, but a Head’s Up Would Have Been Nice”

I’m a children’s reference librarian at the Wellesley Free Library. It is an absolute dream. I help little ones find truck stories and Lego books and even get to fill in for story time if one of the full-time librarians is out sick. I typically work in the library’s main branch (across from Town Hall), though I occasionally have the good fortune to fill in for a storytime at the Stone Branch on Washington Street (the one across from the Congregational Church – you know, the church that sells pumpkins every October).

If you haven’t been (shame on you), the library is housed in a small, one room, stone building. Coffee is allowed! And there are some great antique tables and chairs for reading. Seriously, check it out if you haven’t had the chance. It is the best. And whenever I am there I feel like I am the heroine in a mystery about a librarian who solves a who-done-it. Go after dark and it feels like the ghost librarian from Ghostbusters might shush you at any moment.

Anyway, I was filling in for a toddler storytime last April. As I handed out the little egg shakers for our last song I noticed a woman at the back of the group. She seemed to be there by herself, no child in sight. I smiled and offered her a shaker, and she declined. I figured she was probably a librarian from another town just checking out the competition, as was often the case.

I wrapped up story time, helped the kids find more books about farms (and superheros and frogs and pirates and princesses) and then began gathering my belongings. My schedule had me due back at the main branch of the library in fifteen minutes.

I was bending over to pick up the container of egg shakers when a voice directly behind me quietly said, “Are you Liz?”

I popped up, startled, and turned around to see the child-free woman standing there. Standing right there. Like, a little too close. “Yes, hi,” I replied, attempting to back away and bumping into the library’s fireplace.

“I’m Laura Arnold, your story time was so sweet,” she said, holding out her hand.

I shifted the egg shaker box and held mine out in return. We shook. My hand engulfed hers. She was a teeny tiny little bit of a thing. Hair. Makeup. Skin. Outfit. Perfection.

What is with the women in this town? I thought.

She had the cutest haircut I’d ever seen outside of a television. Her jet black hair was cut into a Vidal Sassoon-like bob. Her olive skin was all flawlessness and glow. I think she was only wearing mascara and blush. Probably in her late twenties or early thirties at the latest, she was wearing a wrap dress covered by a jean jacket. And, if you must know, I hovered over her in ill-fitting navy blue capris, a wrinkled white button down shirt, old red flats and, actually, a pretty cool chunky necklace, if I may say so myself.

“Thanks, I replied to her comment about the story time. “Are you visiting from another library?”

“No, no, I used to be in finance, but I stay at home now, I -” she paused, leaning a little closer, backing me into the fireplace mantle. “They told me that you would be here at the main library. So I came over to find you. I saw your note on the community board and a friend knew that you worked at the library. We just don’t know who else will believe us.”

“Oh!” I said, realization dawning. “You have a ghost story, great!”

“Sort of, I mean, something is haunting us. Do you have time to talk?”

“Oh!” I said again. “Excellent! Well, I don’t have time right now, I’m due back to cover the children’s desk, and I can’t really talk when I am at work. But I am happy to arrange to meet you.”

“When do you get off work?” She asked.

“Um,” I began, feeling the woman’s anxiety rolling off her and really really wanting to regain a little bit of personal space. “Well, my shift ends at one o’clock and I don’t have to pick the girls up from the daycare until three, so I guess I could -”

“Perfect. Can you meet me back here?” She asked.

“Sure,” I said, side stepping away from her. “I’ll look forward to hearing your story.”

“I don’t know if you should,” she replied.

I had been planning on going to Whole Foods after work, but it could wait. The girls would have to be fine with cereal for dinner. I was tired and pregnant and not in the mood anyway. I met Laura back at the library after swinging over to Starbucks for a latte (just to reiterate: the library allows drinks – just like Barnes and Nobles, only the books are FREE).

I parked and walked into the library and saw at once that Laura was there with a very large man. She stood up immediately when she saw me. They were ensconced at a circular table in the New Fiction section (the coolest thing about this small library – and any library, really – is that if they don’t have something in at the branch, they can order it for you and it will just take a couple of days to get there. You can even order a book or movie online. Like Amazon, only, FREE).

“Hi, hi,” I said, smiling at them. I pulled out a chair, reached for the digital recorder in my bag and placed it on the table. Then I held a hand out to shake with the giant sitting next to Laura. “I’m Liz,” I said.

“This is my husband, Michael,” Laura said. To her tiny, petite, flawless, he was all hulking, large and disheveled. His navy blue suit was sort of shapeless. His shoes (yes, I glanced under the table) were dull. His dirty blond hair, cut too close, and thinning on top.

“Hello,” he said in a soft voice, and shook my hand. “Thank you for agreeing to meet with us.”

“Sure,” I said, “Do you mind if I record our conversation? My mind is like a sieve these days.”

“No problem at all,” Laura replied. Michael just shook his head.

I turned the recorder on and said, “So, what’s your story?”

The tiny woman and the big man exchanged a look.Through the sort of telekinesis of couples they decided that she would be the spokeswoman.

“Are you Christian?” Laura asked.

“Well, I was raised Catholic, but we go to the Congregational Church across the street because they have a daycare during Mass, I mean, what do they call it? The service! And they were so easy-going about baptizing the girls, so – “ I fumbled.

“Good. Then you’ll understand,” she said. Her husband nodded his large head.

“Sure,” I agreed dumbly.

“We believe our daughter is possessed,” Laura stated.

“Good Lord.”

“We know it started in the house and we know it had something to do with the previous owner’s son.” She continued.

“He was into drugs – not like pot and coke. Serious stuff,” Michael chimed in.

Cocaine has always registered on my scale as a “serious drug,” but, to each his own. I asked, “Why don’t you start somewhere towards the beginning, how long have you lived in your house? And how old is your daughter”

“Lilith is fifteen, we’ve only lived in our home for a little over a year. We transferred from Chicago.” Laura replied.

“You have a fifteen year old daughter? Did you guys get married when you were, like, thirteen?” I said before I could stop myself.

The couple exchanged a glance and actually smiled, “She’s our oldest. We have four children, Lilith, Jake who is twelve, and then twins, Carrie and Rosemary. The little girls will be ten next month,” Laura replied.

This tiny, postage stamp of a perfectly pulled together woman, had four children. Four. And she was wearing makeup and an outfit that matched. I bet she had even showered that morning. Good for her. I mean, she had just told me that her daughter was demon possessed, but still.

“Well, you look like spring chickens,” I said. “You haven’t been in your home long, why do you think you’re daughter’s, um, issue, has to do with the house?”

“I knew before I even stepped foot in that house that something was wrong with it,” Laura said.

Michael, quite the accomplished head nodder and shaker, shook his head and said, “Don’t start with that, you didn’t know there was anything wrong until -”

Laura cut him off, “I did. I knew when the realtor emailed us the photos. But you wanted to see it. You thought it was such a ‘deal.’ I never liked having the railroad tracks behind it. And it’s on such a busy road.”

“It’s close to the middle school, you were thrilled that the kids could walk there.”

“But I didn’t want them drowning in the brook behind the house,” she countered.

“The only time that you can tell it is a stream is after we have a storm.”

“I’m just saying that I knew that house had a problem,” Laura said. She looked at me pointedly, as though I could back her up.

Their poor real estate agent, I thought.

“So you ended up transferring from Chicago and moving into this house. After you moved in, what concerned you?” I asked.

“The house needed updating. Some of it we could do on our own, painting and taking down wallpaper, ripping up old rugs. But updating the kitchen and baths and taking out a couple of walls needed a professional. So we hired a contractor and he started work before we moved in. He called one day, we were still living in Chicago at the time, to say that the project would be delayed. There had been a fire,” Laura said.

“In the mudroom,” Michael interjected.

“Weird place for a fire,” I said.

“We thought so too, and so did the contractor. He didn’t have an explanation. Just that they had left the site the evening before and when they came back, a fire had destroyed the mudroom. Burned a hole clean through the floor down through to the basement and blackened the walls. We went back and forth about it, but eventually agreed to have our insurance cover it. He swore no one on his crew would dare smoke inside one of their sites. Denied having left any power tools plugged in,” Laura explained.

“Weird,” I said. “None of the neighbors noticed the fire? No one called the fire department?”

“No, it just burned in that room and somehow put itself out,” she replied. “That wasn’t the only strange thing that happened when they were there. One of the workers fell off a ladder and broke his arm, another one managed to get into a car accident right in front of the house. But the strangest thing, which we didn’t really get all the details on, was that one of the guys got locked in that little space between the bulkhead and the storm door that closes those stairs off from the basement,” said Laura.

“Yeah, apparently he was there for something like two hours before the other guys found him. Said he’d been yelling for them and banging on the bulkhead but no one on the crew had heard him,” Michael explained.

“Yikes,” I said, shuddering.

“Things were ok when we first moved into the house,” Laura went on. “It’s much smaller than our place in Chicago, so everyone was getting used to less space. There is a bedroom in the basement, and we let Lilith take it. The move was hardest on her.

“We started to settle in, I had most of our things unpacked in the first week. The twins share a room on the second floor, Jack has his own room up there and we are in the master. I wanted to fix Lilith’s room up first. This one day I intended to take down the flowery wallpaper in her room before she got home from school. I was beginning to use the scouring tool on the walls so the remover solution could work when I heard a loud knock, a banging, really, at the door upstairs. I put down the tool on the floor, next to the spray bottle of solution and ran up the basement steps. It took me, I don’t know, thirty seconds to get up there. I looked through the window then opened the door and no one was there. I even walked to the back door, thinking maybe a neighbor was in the backyard. No one. It was unnerving, but I made sure both doors were locked and then went back down to the basement. When I walked into Lilith’s room, my scourer and spray bottle were gone. I couldn’t find them anywhere. I checked under her bed, retraced my steps, everything. It was maddening. I ended up having to go back to the hardware store.”

“Weird,” I said. “If you don’t mind me asking, how is your basement set up?”

“Sure,” Michael replied, “About three quarters of the space is finished. The stairs are in the center, to one side of the basement is an open, carpeted area where we have a few chairs, a couch and a television, to the other side, Lilith’s bedroom is set next to a storage and utility room. The laundry is in there as well.”

“Thanks, I get it,” I said. “Ok, so you had some things go missing, then what?”

“Well, a couple of nights later, Lilith woke me up around two o’clock. She insisted that I had called her name from the top of the basement stairs. I hadn’t. I had been sound asleep. I checked on the little kids and everyone was out cold. Michael didn’t even wake up. I convinced her that it must have been a dream and walked her back down to her room.

“The next night, the same thing happened. This time when she came upstairs she was angry. ‘Mom, you were sleepwalking again! You woke me up!’ Only this time she said she heard me in the utility room ‘monkeying around’ with the washer and dryer. Again, I had been sound asleep, in bed. I wondered if she was having stressful dreams, a sort of response to the move. I asked her if she would feel better sleeping in our room, so I got her set up with a sleeping bag on the floor. I assumed she was just hearing the house settling or pipes banging.”

“This is just me playing devil’s advocate – sorry, bad choice of words – but you said your daughter’s bedroom is right next to the utility room in the basement, with the electrical box and everything, did you ever have the house tested -”

“For high levels of electromagnetic fields?” Michael cut in. “A friend of ours in Chicago thought of the same thing, he is a home inspector so he told us that high levels could lead to feelings of paranoia, or feeling like you’re being watched – even hallucinations. So I was all game for that. I mean, quick answer, right? We had an electrician come in to test. No luck, the entire house fell into the normal range.”

“Shit,” I said, sitting back in my seat. “I was hoping that might solve everything.”

“Me too,” Michael affirmed.

“More strange things began to happen, quickly,” Laura rushed in, proving her point. “I hung a few photos on the wall in the living room. When I walked by them that night they had been turned upside down. Perfectly. Of course, I figured it was the twins, or their brother, but they all denied it. And along with all of this, Lilith became really negative, grumpy, snapping at her siblings. I chalked it up to our move, but she just wasn’t herself.

“Then one day, I came into the living room and Lilith was standing over her brother who was crouched on the floor beneath her. She had her back to me, but Jack looked terrified, like he was about to start crying. ‘What is going on here,’ I demanded. Lilith quickly turned to look at me and I mean it when I tell you that her irises had gone black. Black. It was just for a moment, a split second that I saw it. But I know what I saw.” Laura crossed her arms in front of her and sat back in her chair. I had the sense that perhaps Michael hadn’t completely supported her in her complaints about the house.

“Wow. Did you see anything odd happen in the house?” I asked him, wondering if perhaps his wife had worked herself up with guilt over moving their daughter during high school and then had looked for something to blame for her daughter’s behavior other than herself.

“Not at first, Michael replied, “I sleep like the dead, so whenever Lilith came upstairs in the middle of the night I never heard any of it. Laura told me about the things that happened during the day and I believed her. But we were all under a lot of stress from the move. But, then there was this Saturday. Laura took the younger kids to the movies. It was a gray out, rain expected, so we couldn’t have them ride bikes or anything. Lilith refused to go, so I just agreed to stay home with her. She holed up in the basement, as usual, and I sat on the couch to watch the Notre Dame game.

“I started to hear whispering, a whispered conversation. I turned the volume down on the television. The door to the basement had been left open a crack, and I walked over, stood at the top of the stairs and listened. I thought maybe Lilith had a friend over. I was relieved, actually, that maybe she had snuck someone, even a boy for Christ’s sake, into the basement. I thought for a moment, at least she’s connected with someone here.

“Look, I heard two distinct voices whispering. I gave it a minute then quietly walked down the steps, sure I would be glad that she’s making connections, but not connections with a horny fifteen year old boy. I was even thinking that we would probably need to move her room upstairs so she couldn’t sneak friends in at night.

“As I approached her door I heard someone whisper ‘shh, he’s coming.’ Here we go, I thought, then knocked on the door and pushed it open.

“Liz, my daughter was sitting at her desk with her back to the door. There was no one else in the room. No one. I searched. I asked her, ‘who were you speaking to?’ She kept saying, ‘No one, daddy. No one is here.’ I didn’t know what to think, but it made me lend a little more credence to what Laura had been telling me.”

“When I got home, they were both upstairs watching the game,” Laura said, putting her hand on her husband’s back.

“I made her come upstairs. I was, I don’t know, frightened. For her, for everyone. I mean, who the hell had she been talking to?” Michael demanded.

Laura rubbed his back. “It was about a month later that I finally had the time to tackle the wallpaper in her room again. I was sorry that I did. Beneath it I found a pentagram and several inverted crosses painted on the walls. Not what you might picture, like all dripping paint, sloppily done. No, someone had taken time to artfully paint these symbols on the wall. They were intricate. Almost pretty in a terrible way.”

“No,” I said, chilled.

“I took pictures of them and texted them to Michael. We decided that the first thing to do would be to talk to the neighbors.”

“Wait, who did you buy the house from?” I asked.

“An older couple who were retiring to Florida, we never had any interaction with them. Our realtor and the lawyers handled everything.” Michael replied.

“Do you know anything else about them?” I asked.

“That’s where the neighbors come in,” Laura said. “We hadn’t really met anyone yet. We live on a busy road, but still, I would have thought someone might stop by to welcome us. I made brownies and watched for a car to pull into the driveway next door, then went over and introduced myself to the neighbor. She was sort of standoffish, you know? But I assumed she was just a typical Yankee and that I could kill her with kindness. I got her to invite me in for tea and eventually started asking her about the previous owners of our house. She got a little shifty when I brought up the subject, so I just said, ‘you know, we’ve had some issues and I just wonder if they ever mentioned any trouble with the house.’”

“‘I probably shouldn’t be gossiping about this,’ the woman told me, ‘But, you know that they had a son who died as a teenager. He hung himself. In your basement.’”

“Uh uh,” I said, shaking my head.

“Yes. And the kid had a reputation for wearing all black and being a loner and apparently there had been some kerfuffle over a neighborhood cat,” Laura said angrily. “No one said a word about it when we were buying the house. His parents were able to put the house on the market without disclosing the death because it happened seven years earlier. I looked it up. In Massachusetts you only have to disclose any deaths that have occurred on the property within the previous three years. And, please. Black clothes, a neighborhood cat, the Goddamn pentagram. I mean, I don’t believe sellers have to disclose previous satanic worship on the property, but a head’s up would have been nice.” She slapped her free hand on the table.

“I am so sorry, that is just,” I stammered, “I don’t know, it is horrifying. What are you going to do?” I asked, really wanting to ask how she found out when the boy had died in the house, because I wanted to go home and immediately google our address to be sure there hadn’t been some fucking Satanist doodling on our basement walls.

“What haven’t we done?” Michael said, running his gargantuan hand through his short, thinning hair. “The past six months have been a revolving door of paranormal investigators, home inspectors, ministers. We have an application in at St. Paul’s for an exorcism, but until they can document Lilith’s behavior, we have to wait to formally submit our request.”

I didn’t know what to say. I could feel their desperation, and exhaustion. I believed them, but I really didn’t want to.

“Did you have the house blessed?” I asked, dumbly.

“Of course we did, but that fucking, hippie minister -” Michael spat.

“Michael,” Laura demanded, “He did the best he could. Lilith was, well, upset that we had him come, and she gave him a hard time.”

“A doctor? Or psychiatrist?” I asked, feeling like a total jerk, but, you know, it was a child we were talking about.

“Two pediatricians. Three psychiatrists, and a reiki healer.” Laura replied.

“Again, I am so so sorry,” I began, then noticed through the windows behind the couple that the day had darkened and a downpour was pummeling the windows behind them. I had been so wrapped up in their story that I had completely forgotten to watch the time.

I looked at the clock on the recorder, “Oh no!” I said. I was due to pick the girls up from daycare in two minutes. “I am so so sorry, but I have to go get my girls. I wasn’t watching the time.” The couple stared at me. “I am really sorry for being so abrupt, I should have been paying closer attention. Thank you for telling me your story, it was -” I paused, trying to think of the right word, then went with, “Chilling.”

“It’s not just a story, we need help,” Laura said. “Since you are a ghost hunter we thought that maybe you might have connections. I saw on television that some of the ghost hunting teams have their own demonologists that they call in for certain investigations.”

“No, I am just -” I began.

“We had an investigation team come in, but they just made things worse. They were inexperienced, and I think they may have invited more activity in by interacting with whatever is in our home. None of us are sleeping. I -”

“Laura, wait, I am a writer. I’m not -”

“I convinced Michael to meet with you. After the last group, the voices are so much worse. But I convinced him because your post in the library was so, local. So, simple.”

“There’s been a misunderstanding. I am not a ghost hunter, I am just looking to document area ghost stories.” I said, firmly.

“She’s not going to fucking help us,” Michael said. “No one can.” He pushed his chair away from the table and stood. I wondered how the antique chair had supported his immense body. “Laura, I’m going back to work, I’ll see you tonight.” Then he walked slash stomped to the door and disappeared out into the storm.

“Laura, I -”

“No,” she held up her hand to stop me, then gathered her bag from the floor onto her lap, white knuckling it’s straps. “It’s not your fault. I just thought you were someone else.”

“I’m a writer, I like ghost stories,” I began, then stopped myself and apologized again. “Laura, I am sorry. I have daughters and I can’t even imagine.”

“No, you can’t,” she said. “And I hope you never have to. Thank you, Liz.”

We shook hands and I watched her walk out of the library.

I really needed to change the flier I had posted. First Pam thinking that I was going to take her haunted seashell tchotchke and now this?

As I rushed into the girls daycare center, soaked to the bone and trying to avoid puddles, I wondered how many more of these stories existed in this town.